Laura Jane Grace: My life in 10 songs
Against Me! vocalist and punk rock hero Laura Jane Grace retreads her musical steps and digs into the songs that changed her perspective on music and life.
On March 8, Laura Jane Grace took a day out of rehearsals with Against Me! to perform a short acoustic set at a rally for US Senator Bernie Sanders in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sanders was fighting to secure the Democratic Party nomination to run against incumbent President Donald Trump in November’s election, and Laura Jane, a long-time supporter of the liberal Senator from Vermont wanted to show her support for his campaign. In front of a small but enthusiastic crowd in the college town which spawned The Stooges, Laura Jane performed a striking new track earmarked for Against Me!’s eighth studio album. 'God is good and God is great, now get the fuck out of the USA,' ran the chorus to Hanging Tree, going on to reference burning crucifixes, automatic weapons, white supremacy and liberty and justice for the wealthy, in a searing state-of-the-nation address. Implicit in the song’s lyrics was the idea that something had to change. And something did, though not in the manner that Laura Jane or anyone else could have predicted on that crisp March evening.
“Right before the lockdown happened, we spent a week in the studio in Michigan, then I played the Bernie Sanders event, and then we left on a tour,” Laura Jane recalls, casting her mind back. “We were three days into the tour when everything went down and we had to cancel and go home. It became apparent pretty quickly that all our plans were off.”
By her own admission, Laura Jane spent the first weeks of lockdown at home in Chicago feeling confused, distressed and directionless, “being like, ‘What the fuck happened and what the fuck is happening with the world?’” But as it became increasingly apparent that a new order was being imposed worldwide, she came to the realisation that the 30-35 songs she’d written for the follow-up to Against Me!’s 2016 album Shape Shift With Me were going to be “stale” and out-of-date if shelved until she could reunite with her bandmates James Bowman (guitar), Andrew Seward (bass) and Atom Willard (drums). “I didn’t want to let the songs die, or just throw away the songs, because it felt like this was their moment,” she says. “It felt like the time to act was now. All I had to do was adjust my perspective.”
Laura Jane’s plan B was simple. She called her adopted hometown’s Electrical Audio studio and enquired about the possibility of booking time with owner Steve Albini, frontman of Shellac and recording engineer for Nirvana, Pixies, Page & Plant and a thousand less-heralded artists. When she hung up, she had four days of studio time booked.
The result of that four day session is with us now, in the form of Stay Alive, a powerful, vibrant, urgent and empathetic 14-track solo album, recorded in just two days using only analogue equipment, which collates all her fears, anxieties, anger and hopes and spits them right into the faces of her listeners. It's Laura Jane Grace as you’ve never heard her before, reset, re-invigorated and ready for whatever might lie ahead. Which, right now, is sharing her thoughts on the album with us…
Let’s rewind to New Year’s Eve 2019. When you were eyeing up 2020, how were you feeling about the year that was lying ahead of you?
"Well, if you had talked to me at the end of last year, I’d have told you that absolutely under no circumstances do I want to put out a record around the election coming up in the U.S. Fast forward to now, and here we are talking about a new record! I was thinking, ‘God, fuck, it’s going to be a nightmare’, and it is a nightmare, but my attitude kinda flipped on that. We played a show on New Year’s Eve in Denver, Colorado, and my new year’s resolution, that I announced to the audience, was that I was going to quit smoking cannabis until Trump is out of office. I’ve held to that resolution, and if you’ve seen the new album cover, it’s a picture of all the last joints I smoked. So, I look forward to the day when Trump is out of office and I can smoke weed again."
You’d actually started the songs on Stay Alive with the view to them being on a band record…
"Yeah, that was the premise we were operating under. Since before the new year and into the first few months of 2020 we were getting together every couple of weeks and working on songs. But none of us live in the same city, none of us even live in the same state, so physically we just can’t be together, and we can’t continue working on things really. You read right now about job losses and about how venues are closing, and record stores are struggling, all this is disappearing, so if you can work, choosing not to work seemed unacceptable."
This might be a stupid question, but with a decision like that, do you have to ask permission from the other members of Against Me!?
"Not in this case. Everyone gets it. This is nothing by choice. The record I did before this, in 2018, with The Devouring Mothers [Bought To Rot] that was something where I was like, ‘Hey everybody, I really just want to do this, is this cool? I’d like to get it out of my system.’ But everyone gets that this is out of our control. No-one wanted to be in this situation, but what can you do but make the best of it?"
Everyone knows Steve Albini by reputation: did you know him personally before you called Electrical Audio?
"I’d maybe met him in passing once before, but I didn’t know him really. But, of course, I’ve been a fan of so many records he’s made, as well as being a fan of Shellac. We’d played a show with Shellac in 2017 at Primavera Sound and I saw him there. I’d always wanted to make a record with Steve Albini, and I’d always wanted to see Electrical Audio too, especially after seeing it in that Foo Fighters Sonic Highways documentary. It’s a mythical studio, and it turned out that it’s only down the street from my place here. I don’t want that studio to go away, so the only way that I could fight against it going away was booking time there, and supporting it.
"I also really specifically wanted to make an analogue recording, I didn’t want any computers involved in making the record, I wanted to make a record that was like, the antithesis of a Zoom call. And I wanted it to be as un-indulgent as possible, like I didn’t want the option to do overdubs, and I didn’t want the option to fix stuff if that wasn’t the actual performance. I also really didn’t want anyone telling me their opinion of what they thought about the songs, because I thought that that was inconsequential. It’s not really about the songs and what they’re saying so much as it is about the act of recording them, and the act of singing them being joyous, and the act of working, and the overall effort of the record collectively.
"With the title Stay Alive there’s no metaphor involved there, I very directly mean that, and I knew that Steve is a recording engineer, he’s not a producer, and I just wanted someone to press ‘Record’ and make it sound good. I knew that I’d have to show up and be well-rehearsed, and if I was wasting his time in any way, he wouldn’t have any patience for it."
I talked once to Dave Grohl about Albini recording In Utero for Nirvana and he said that Albini was like, 'Are your songs prepared? Are you going to come into the studio and fuck around for two weeks?'
"Yeah, I’ve heard those stories too. And my experience felt true to that, most of the songs on the record are first takes, or second takes. I knew that I needed that as a motivator, because with this open-ended expanse of time, you could very easily – if you had the resources, money-wise – be like, 'Okay, we’re going to spend the next six months in the studio making a record.' You could do that, tweaking songs, until this lockdown is over, endlessly."
If we get into the record then, I must congratulate you on having the song title of the year in So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Fuck Off…
"(Laughs) Thank you! I believe in manifestation, so I was thinking, 'What would we all like to be saying come November?' [Sings melody line from The Sound Of Music] So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, fuck off!"
The shadow of President Trump looms large over this record, most notably perhaps on Hanging Tree, which seems like a real critique of America under his leadership. Has his presidency been quite a dispiriting period for you as an artist, and as a human being? It must be taxing…
"Psychologically, for sure. But I kinda think that that’s by design, it’s meant to break you down mentally. You have to find ways to resist that. And that’s what art is. Art is a tool of resistance. But it’s a daily challenge not to lose hope in the face of his bombardment. I wrote Hanging Tree in 2017 or 2018, and it really seems like, with everything that’s happened here [in America] this past summer, with the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, it really felt like it lined up. It feels very relevant right now. And while I would like very much to be at every protest out on the street, often-times I can’t go: I’m a parent, and I’ve got my 10-year-old to look after. So in wanting to still be a part of contributing, and helping to raise awareness, I can definitely do that with art, I can definitely do that with the record, and make sure that that voice is heard there."
There seems to be a certain duality and perhaps tension in the lyrics too, with a lyric like ‘I don’t know where I belong’ (Please Leave), set against a song like Shelter In Place, which seems to be about accepting where you are and who you are. Is there a sense that you want to be a part of a community but you also want a sense of freedom?
"Well, having been on tour for the past 20 years, essentially, the cycle that I’ve been doing is going out for a month, then having a week or two to reflect, and then going out for another month. This is actually the longest period of time I’ve had as a break from that since I started touring. So coming back, and recognising that momentum is coming to a halt, and being stationary, it feels inevitable or uncontrollable that I’m going to be looking back and recounting on travels and reimagining myself in places that I’ve been. I’m thankful for that in so many ways, I can close my eyes and see places that I’ve been, and I know that there are places beyond here, that I can go to again hopefully, some day. The idea of travelling without being able to travel is there in the record.
"But with the song Please Leave, a couple of years ago I was involved in a situation with someone I know of trying to convince them to leave, saying, 'Let’s go, let’s fucking leave this country, let’s get out of here, because this is not a good scene.' Often-times in situations you know that you really should get out of a place, but there’s all these reasons that crop up why you shouldn’t, like, what are you going to do with your books or your records or your fucking couch? But really when it comes down to it, all those material things are so replaceable, and all those things that you worry about losing by making big choices, you can find them again, if not better, in wherever you end up."
Regarding the track Mountain Song, in an interview on the GRAMMYs website last year, you mentioned being sober since August 31, 2018. So is this song related to that?
"It is, for sure. 'Coming down the mountain dry…' I’ve been dry since August 31, 2018, so two years at this point, and some days, which is cool. It feels all the more important to be as clear-headed as possible in this period of time, to be able to face each day fully, and to not be in denial about anything that’s happening me outside of me. So yeah, that song is directly about that."
The closing lyric on the song is ‘I’m all fucked up, but I’m alive…’ Did you have a moment where you hit rock bottom with alcohol, or was it more a creeping realisation that things had to change, for yourself?
"Well, what’s more scary than a rock bottom moment, is knowing that you’re a fully-functioning alcoholic, knowing that you could very easily, for the rest of your life, wake up and continue on drinking and getting fucked up exactly as you have been for the rest of your life and still maintain some normalcy and competency. That to me is more terrifying, because, like, at the same time, you’re never reaching your full potential, you’re always selling yourself short, and you’re living a life of never really knowing what would have happened if you hadn’t done that. You’d never really know what the actual cost was. And that’s scarier to me than just being a total disaster. I’ve come off 20 years on the road and it’s all come to a complete standstill because of something that you never would have predicted, a global pandemic, and you’re really able to look at yourself and think like, 'Okay, what did 20 years mean? Where did 20 years get me?' This is where I’m at, and it’s really plain as day. I can see my battle scars, I can look in the mirror and see my fucked-up teeth and see my bad tattoos. Most of these tattoos were conscious decisions, but some of them are decisions that I maybe wouldn’t have made if I was in a better state of mind. But you’ve gotta live with those choices, you’ve gotta live with broken relationships, you’ve gotta live with the bad shit that happened, it’s all a part of you. Even if you weren’t totally you when it was happening. I’ve made a lot of choices in the past couple of years to correct myself, and to act more responsibly. Part of the irresponsibility is being younger, you’re going to make mistakes when you’re young, but there comes a point where you gotta grow up."
Where does the song’s title come from?
"There’s a favourite quote of mine from Prince that kinda inspired the Mountain Song. Prince once said, ‘I’ve been to the top of the mountain and there’s nothing there’. As a musician, you’re always fighting to get to the top of the mountain, you’re fighting to be bigger and to play to more people and to sell more records, whatever, and when it comes down to it, you’ll get to the top, and see that there’s nothing there. Prince has already been there, Prince can tell you!"
For all the shit that’s been thrown at you this year, and amid all the isolation and solitude, has 2020 given you the opportunity to know yourself better and perhaps even like yourself more?
"In a lot of ways, yeah. This has focussed me and centred me. It hasn’t driven me into a hole of self-loathing and self-defeat. I wake up and I might be stressed out by things I see in the world around me, or I might be saddened or scared, but I’m still facing it, and I’m doing what I can. Even if that’s just running an errand that needs to be taken care of, or going for a run, or doing some self-care, like taking a long bath. Positively facing things and realising what’s in your control and what’s not in your control is so important right now."
One thing that’s not wholly in your control is removing Mr Trump from the White House in November. How confident are you that the American people are going to make the right decision when they go to vote?
"I’m not even very confident that it’ll come down to that. I think the stage has already been set where he’ll contest the results, no matter what. I hope that there’ll be an overwhelming landslide and that it’s apparent that Biden has won, but I don’t think that [Trump] will accept the result anyway. Just [the other day] he gave a news conference saying that he can’t guarantee that there’ll be a peaceful transition of power. He’s an autocrat, he’s a dictator, he’s a tyrant... and he’s going to hold on to power in the most ruthless ways possible. And I’m terrified of that. What’s scary about this is that there’s nothing actually that we can do about it. That’s kinda frightening. But you gotta keep on living, and gotta keep on fighting."
In this climate, Stay Alive sounds like a survivor’s manual of sorts, offering hope and solace. What do you want people to get from the album?
"To stay alive. One hundred per cent that. I tried to make the title as unambiguous and direct as possible, there’s nothing more that needs to be said. I push myself to be self-motivated, to wake up every day and to do as much as I can, but at the same time, if all you can do is wake up, that’s enough. Just stay alive until the other side of this, whatever it takes, just stay alive."
Stay Alive is out now via Big Scary Monsters.
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